In advance of the performance of refresh on Saturday 29 March we spoke to choreographer, dancer and mentor Kerry Nicholls about what it’s like to work on the refresh project and how the experience has helped inform her own process and development as well as those of the participants.
Q: You've been involved with refresh since its first year - what do you enjoy about mentoring the young dancers and their group leaders?
There are so many youth companies in this country who are working within a realm of differing styles - therefore the results of the refresh showcase each and every year show an impressive range, diversity and dynamism which I love. Seeing the groups at various stages of the creative process is incredibly exciting: the beginning with no concept and only their reaction to the given piece of music, mid-way when they present physical ideas for the first time, and culminating with the finished work on performance day. You understand so much of the decision-making behind the piece as you are in close contact with the groups throughout the process but the final solutions are theirs, in their own manner and in their own voice - I find it fascinating. I learn so much about my own creative process as a result of sharing theirs. However, the main element of refresh that I enjoy the most is giving attention to the group leaders themselves. refresh has the charged ideology that it supports and challenges the group leaders in equal measure with the aim of nurturing the inspirers who give so much to their young dancers on a weekly basis. Armed with the security of the refresh support network and strategic input throughout, the group leaders genuinely feel as though they can take risks within the project and that their work is to some extent 'cared for'. This is a golden opportunity to reflect and renew their creative thinking and it's wonderful to use refresh to acknowledge their efforts.
Q: What is the most satisfying thing for you about working creatively with young people?
I was a member of a youth dance company in my teens and the gratifying experience genuinely stirred my passion for dance, formed the foundation of my career and left me eager to discover more. I am indebted to the director for being so enthusiastic about my personal development. Reaching young people with good quality interactions at their time of life can be transformative and shape their next steps - and not only for those who want a career in dance. Due to the nature of dance and its present time usefulness, I discover new ideas and new processes at every moment when working with young people - I find them more honest than most! There is a particular energy when working with young people and the interaction is lively, immediate and urgent. It is so satisfying to see the physical range in their bodies increase as they find the joy in moving, their imaginations become animated as they find new mind/body connections, their trust in each other grow as they partner each other, and the biggest reward is seeing their self esteem bloom whilst they work together on a piece. Providing a place where young people can express and be fearless is precious. Opening a new creative world for them with freedom to question and giving opportunity to be heard can be life changing, and I love that they usually grab the opportunity with both hands. I continue to support many dancers who I initially worked with on youth platforms. It is so rewarding to see their careers unfold and be a small part of their personal narrative. These experiences are also beneficial for me as a person, teacher and as an artist and recharges my artistic heartbeat. I am hugely passionate about scouting young talent and potential, and engaging in personal stories that matter. These are all present in refresh.
Q: What is your process - how do you help group leaders generate and then realise their ideas?
The first stage is when the group leaders and I meet as a collective for the first time within the frame of an 'Inspiration Day'. I teach class and lead a choreographic workshop so as to develop movement - also giving space to network and share experiences with other group leaders. At the end of the day, we conduct the 'music lottery' and each group leader randomly selects and then hears their music for their refresh work for the first time - it can bring mixed emotions! From this initial day, I keep in contact via email or phone and check in with how their dancers are working with the music and what first ideas are transpiring. The next direct contact is on 'Mentoring Sunday' which is the first time that I meet the group and observe their physical ideas. The young people work in the theatre space at The Place, and the choreographer can sit with me in the auditorium giving invaluable distance from their work. That day offers a space to engage in conversation, to encourage dialogue, to question and potentially persuade a re-ordering of ideas. More email contact follows with some video links (Dropbox is amazing!) before we arrive at the performance day. I give performative notes to the young cast and enjoy seeing the hard work pay off in the show! Being a soundboard at strategic points during the project allows the group leaders to realise their own answers which I think is the most productive method to mentoring.
Q: What have been some of the highlights of the platform for you to date?
I have many. The atmosphere of the performance day each year is an obvious highlight which is why I am eager to return each year when I am invited. The support that each company gives to each other as well as the camaraderie the group leaders have between them makes it a special day with empathic sharing. These types of projects knit the youth dance community together and the refresh evening is a huge celebration of all the dynamic work being made in the country. I enjoy keeping in touch with many of the group leaders and support where I can when refresh is over for that year.
Being more specific - I adored working with one choreographer who was incredibly resistant to being mentored at the beginning of the project one year. Towards the end, they became so driven for more feedback and their work transformed as a result of our dialogue, it was such an exciting time. We are still in contact. The Kronos group from the BRIT school was also a highlight - seeing so many young men dancing with such courage was astounding.The stage in the Robin Howard Theatre looked like a postage stamp with their abundance of fearless energy. They even had this exuberance at 9am for their 'Mentoring Sunday' slot which got my mammoth day off to a flying start! Robia and Ajani amazed me with their finished creation. The lottery piece of music was so removed from their usual sound world but it became a departure and allowed their physical and musical invention to come to the fore. It was clever, captivating and totally inspiring.
Q: What are you most looking forward to this year?
As every year, I get so excited to see the transformation of the pieces from 'Mentoring Sunday' and reflect on the totality of the process from the auditorium during the show. I enjoy recalling the choreographers first reaction to the music during the music lottery and then witness their fully fledged pieces. Putting yourself in the position to not choose the sound score for your work is a courageous thing to do and I know that a few pieces of music have been a challenge to some this year - so I am looking forward to seeing how the group leaders have solved their struggles and been able to fly with it. There is also a large breadth of ages on the stage this year (our largest ever) which will be an appealing element for me, and excitingly we have our first learning disabled company taking part. It's going to be fun!